The Price Is Right?

With May Ball tickets sending us into our overdrafts, HOLLY STEVENSON asks whether one night can ever live up to its price tag.

bulture Cindies Clare control pants Cosmopolitan cyclists durham Haiti May Ball Price Rome

I had an inauspicious start to the countdown of my first ever Cambridge May Ball. It began with a phone call to my boyfriend (currently up in the frozen wastes of the North looking at atoms. Or particles. Or something):

‘The tickets are HOW MUCH?’

Now, I should explain that my boyfriend (let’s call him Jeff, just for fun) goes to Durham, a normal University. At normal Universities, students do not pay £100+ for one evening of light entertainment. Even if there are fireworks and a chocolate fountain. This pretty much scuppered my scheme to get him to come to my May Ball (and, for the record, Clare and Josephine Butler colleges, thanks for holding your balls on the same day – so helpful of you), so I had to resort to other tactics. However, as he was 200 miles away, I couldn’t resort to my normal strategy to get him to do what I want, which generally involves bribery in the form of sexual favours. I had to actually sell the Ball to him.

This got me thinking. £120 (the price of a Clare May Ball ticket) could buy a lot of things. For instance, I could get 12 copies of Vampire Weekend’s new album (what if I really, really liked it?) or 36 issues of Cosmopolitan. I could fly to Rome and back with 2p to spare. Pound for pound, one May Ball ticket is the equivalent of going to Cindies 40 times. That’s nearly six weeks straight of stickiness and cheesy music.

It gets worse. Of course, for a May Ball, as for any occasion, the ticket price isn’t the only dollar you’ll be handing over. Jeff would have to come down on the train from Durham, which for a return costs £100. I will have to bow to the pressures of society and go to the Ball in something a little more dressy than trackies and a hoodie. So a dress would be perhaps another £100. Add on say, £30 for shoes, another £40 for a bag, jewellery, make up, etc, and then another £30 for a hairdresser. Plus, of course, £260 for two ball tickets (oh yes, they slap on another £20 for guest tickets). Fortunately, Jeff already has his own tux. Even so, our total estimated bill would be close on £600. For a single evening. That’s enough for a family of four to spend a week’s holiday in Cornwall, with £100 spending money. Feeling queasy yet?

And so, as a Fresher, wide-eyed and blithely innocent of summer at Cambridge, there are two perspectives you can take to the extravagance of May Balls. You can continue to subscribe to the dreamy-starspangled Cambridge you envisioned when you applied all those months ago, dismissing the huge burning hole in your bank account by saying, ‘but it’s Cambridge.’ In my mind, those three words can be applied to a lot of quirky occurrences here – writing an essay at 4am still smelling of Cindies, wearing a gown despite looking quite a lot like a vulture, nearly getting mown down by a posse of cyclists foaming at the mouth – but I wonder if they’re quite enough to gloss over a price tag which, if it was for anything else, would cause riots in the streets?

To put it in an even sharper perspective, think what a difference £600 would make to the inhabitants of Haiti.

And so your other perspective would be to be a little more cynical. Behind the glitter of the ‘University of Cambridge’ moniker – this year named the UK’s second most prestigious brand, only beaten by Mercedes-Benz  – the University got away with patriarchy, nepotism and class discrimination for far too long (Magdalene College became mixed in…can you guess? No, it’s worse than you thought. The answer is 1988, two years before I was born). I do feel fortunate to be attending the University when these issues are continually being addressed, but it does beg the question: even though we are the ‘privileged few’ who get to see Cambridge University ‘warts and all’, are we still being dazzled by the Cambridge ‘brand’ so that we cripple ourselves for one night in which it will probably rain?

I suppose what I’m ultimately asking is, this time, will all that glitters actually be gold? Will the sparkle and allure of the words, ‘Cambridge May Ball’, transform an occasion in which I will be wearing control pants into a truly magical experience?

Ask me again on the 15th June. You’ll find me hiding from my bank manager.